Michael O’Mara Books, 2015, 327 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
The 1936 abdication had it all for Royal soap opera addicts. The King of England, Edward VIII, gave up the crown so he could marry Wallis Simpson, who, as an American, a divorcée and not being “PLU - People Like Us”, had three strikes against her being allowed to become Queen, as Andrew Morton explores in 17 Carnations. The real story, however, lay elsewhere, well-concealed, in Edward’s untimely ardour for Hitler when Nazism shifted from being a valued defence against the Red Menace to posing a threat to the British empire.
Edward was a “miserable prince”, depressed by, as the party-boy complained, having to ‘hit up with a lot of old-fashioned and boring people and conventions’. Sure, the privileges of royalty were nice - Edward would rise “not much before eleven”, before an afternoon of golf or fox-hunting or polo followed by cocktails in the evening and then the nightlife until the early hours - but the dull ‘Princing’ duties and the limited pool of royal mating partners were too much to bear.
When the untitled Simpson hove in to view from Baltimore, Edward was infatuated. Also excited was Adolf Hitler who took a political interest in the pro-Nazi love-birds. Hitler had earlier attempted to broker a marriage between German royalty and the Prince, and now set Joachim von Ribbentrop, his foreign affairs point-man, to the cynical ploy of engaging in a carnation-strewn, clandestine affair with Simpson to gain access to the new king.
Edward was receptive to the Nazi cultivation. He was a man of staggering wealth who thought, like most of the pukka aristocracy, that Britain’s very own Blackshirts were ‘a good thing’ for sorting out trade unions and communists. His anti-Semitism, his hatred of Indian and Irish nationalists, his dislike of ‘those bloody suffragettes’ and his “lifetime loathing of the Bolsheviks” because of the execution of Czar Nicholas (Edward’s god-father) also made this right-wing extremist into a potential Nazi recruit.
Hitler’s hopes were rewarded when the newly-crowned King leant on the British government to not respond to the Nazis’ early expansionism in Europe. Hitler was aghast then, when Edward abdicated, but Plan B was to get the now demoted Duke to be a celebrity voice for ‘peace’ (on Nazi terms) and ultimately to be installed as the Nazis’ puppet King of England.
To keep Edward away from Nazi temptation, the government ordered him from semi-banishment in Nazi-threatened France to the Bahamas as governor in 1940, where he continued to entertain Hitler’s plans, telling an interviewer (and undercover FBI agent) that ‘it would be a tragic thing for the world if Hitler were to be overthrown’ by revolution in Germany.
Crisis, however, loomed for the monarchy when Edward’s Nazi-friendly past threatened to publicly emerge after the war. The Allies had agreed to a joint US, UK and French history of Nazi foreign policy as a re-education tool for the German population, based on seized German Foreign Office archives.
These documents, however, contained Edward’s compromising comments on Nazism, causing Buckingham Palace and Whitehall to attempt to suppress ‘the Windsor file’ in order to cover up the existence of a treacherous rat-in-waiting, and his like-minded circle, at the heart of the monarchy, the “beating heart of the nation” as they liked to see it.
The US and French (but not the British) editors, as professional historians, bridled at the political interference and threated resignation. Their would-be censors eventually agreed this would be a bad look for academic freedom in the victorious capitalist democracies and, after re-jigging the publication schedule to keep the offending file away from public eyes until 1957, opted for public relations massaging on its release. Edward, soothed the Foreign Office via a compliant establishment media, was an “innocent party caught in a web of Nazi intrigue, a royal dupe rather than a traitor king”.
Morton, alas, joins this rehabilitation chorus – Edward “made mistakes, said things he shouldn’t and met people he should have shunned” but “he was a nuisance not a traitor”. Morton ends up soft-soaping Edward, including, for example, ignoring the Prince’s fascist propensity for street violence when he volunteered as a strike-breaking ‘special constable’ in the 1926 General Strike. Despite declaring an antipathy to Royal history-writing “on bended knee”, Morton’s book is intrinsically deferential to (and fascinated by) the cult of monarchy, including its very English King who was knee-deep in fascist mud of his own making.